Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks

My amazon review for this book was entitled "Far from perfect, but perfect from afar."  The reason I consider 'The Generals' perfect from afar is because it does what any polemical text should do, provoke and anger.  Yet this is more than just a polemical tirade against the United States Armed Forces.  The polemical tone does the job of gaining the reader's attention and holds it throughout the text.  The reason I thought the book was far from perfect is because Ricks is covering too much.  There is undoubtedly more to the story than he's found.  Some six wars are discussed in less than five hundred pages, so omissions are bound to occur.  But, as pointed out, this is an important starting point for understanding just how much has occurred in the higher echelons of the US military and the discourse between the army and government.  There is no doubt that the performance of the United States Military in the past decade should be examined in meticulous detail.  But a discussion of our armed forces, according to Ricks, need to begin at the very least around the WWII period.  Contrary to some views, while Ricks is impressed by George Marshall and his approach to both war and military commanders, there are numerous instances of Ricks pointing out that the military which entered and finished the Second World War was in many ways an inadequate institution.  Although many of the commanders of that era should be emulated, including some who have been seemingly written out of the history books, there was always room for improvement even with the likes of Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Simpson.

This level of analysis persists throughout the book and the discussions revolving around the Korean War offer a glimpse of what happened to the army once Marshall's ideas were forgotten and generals and civilians stepped away from quickly asserting their control over subordinates until it was far too late and cost the lives of too many men.  Soon followed the intermingling of military men with politicians, which Marshall was against.  The myopic view of warfare that followed WWII left generals believing they were solely in charge of winning wars on the tactical and operational level rather than the strategic.  Additionally, many commanding officers seemed to have forgotten that winning was a relative term.  This obviously doesn't take into account those officers who were simply ignorant of their surroundings.  The draft and rotation system put into effect during the Vietnam War, according to Ricks, was one of the biggest reasons for the poor performance of the US military.  Just as men were becoming familiar with their enemy and became attuned to their surroundings and the nature of the conflict, they were rotated stateside.  Additionally, the rotation system for officers only lasted six months in the field, meaning after months of poor performance, officers would often be left in place as their turn to return to the states was just around the corner.  At this point politicians began to dictate dismissals, what few there were, while generals closed tight around their own, going so far as to cover-up massacres and war crimes being perpetrated halfway around the world.

By the time The Gulf War began the army had been remade, but in the battle between those who advocating concentrating on linear tactics and operational art and those who wanted strategically oriented officers who could adjust to the environment they would find themselves in, the former won out over the latter.  Thus the victory that was achieved in 1991 was a perfect example of an armed force well supplied and trained to fight a convention ground war.  One of the problems, however, was that the generals greatly overestimated the enemy they faced.  The four days of combat spoke volumes about Saddam's capabilities, and while the battle might have been won the war was far from over, as the next decade exhibited a continued need to keep Iraq in-check.  Once again, the generals in charge assumed the politicians would take care of the strategic thinking forgetting that war continues to be the practice of politics by other means.  Thus when the army was once more asked to invade Iraq and did so during Bush's tenure, they were quick and decisive in defeating a conventional ground force, but when asked to do more, both government officials and the generals in charge (minus a select few) continued to erroneously address a developing situation within Iraq as well as Afghanistan that they did not understand.

Yes, the author's immediate point revolves around the idea of dismissing generals who cannot perform well, but he consistently shows that this does not mean nor should it mean an end to their careers. Throughout the book, Ricks painstakingly portrays the military as a delinquent institution that cannot get a handle on its responsibilities.  Yet it remains an institution where commanding officers who continually make mistakes are hardly held accountable and politicians who berate the military without caring for American lives or the consequences of their immediate actions feel themselves entitled to such posturing.  Furthermore, the training commanding generals go through is inadequate because it continually leaves out abstract and independent thinking that goes against what the army has been training for decades to do, find the enemy and destroy it.  Wars were never simple but today's conflicts are continually challenging previous thinking about what it means to be a military institution, a commanding officer, and the definition of 'winning'.


Vassily Korman said...

Very interesting review. Since I've discovered your blog, I've found a lot of new interesting title to buy through your reviews.
One question: is there any DECENT web forum dedicated to Soviet history and the Eastern Front frequented by serious historians and not necessarily flooded by hordes of nerds and Axis fanboys?

T. Kunikov said...

Glad you found the review interesting. As for a 'decent web forum', I used to frequent quite a few years ago. Today, I'm just not sure. I can recommend the ones I tend to look into every now and then, which remain axis history forum and armchair general:

Unfortunately serious historians do not have the time or patience to participate in discussions on such forums (mainly why I stopped posting regularly). Mostly they utilize H-Russia and H-War, they are e-mail based groups.

Vassily Korman said...

Thanks for your quick reply. I've browsed axishistory but, to be honest, as an old man I value my blood pressure, and a the first few post I've read didn't exactly help on that. I'll check armchairgeneral.

I've been quite dedicated on the Eastern Front history as an amateur during the 80's and 90's (I'm the son of a professional historian), but growing family and lack of time pushed me out of the arena on the dawning days of Internet. Now I've decided to check the "state of art" again (after all, I've a huge collection of books on the subject...).

I must say that I'm part pleasantly surprised, but at the same time hugely disappointed. In the mid 90's, it really seemed as (thanks to people like Glantz) the whole area was on the verge of a huge leapt forward, because of the increased access to Soviet archival sources, the "end" of the Cold War, and the fact there was a new generation of scholars from the ex-Soviet bloc beginning to write on these issues.

I must say that indeed some new interesting stuff seems to come precisely from that area. On the other hand Cold War cliches, Wehrmacht sycophancy, sloppy research and all out amateurism seem to be rampant. I find particularly depressing to read people who still thinks Beevor is the non-plus-ultra of scholarship, or David Glantz is biased towards the Russian side of the argument. Bleah.

T. Kunikov said...

Unfortunately the 90s were a promising period that did not wholly deliver. This is a result of at least two developments. One was the slow reversal of Russian policies in regards to archives themselves, with many being reclassified again (and the ministry of defense archives are wholly off-limits to non-Russians). The second development, or rather lack of development, was that scholars seemed to have jumped from pre-war Soviet studies into post-war Soviet studies wholly bypassing the war itself.

Today there are a few scholars working on the war but most use it as tool, which unfortunately is the reality of scholarly research. Original work is very rare when it comes to the Eastern Front, so that operational histories like those developed by Glantz seem to be the only alternative for those interested in the 'nuts and bolts' of the Eastern Front.

The one area of progress (although that is a relative term here) is the work of Stuart Britton, who has single-handedly translated close to a dozen memoirs/monographs/studies of the Eastern Front and continues such work today (at least two-three new volumes to be released within the coming year). Western readers and researchers are woefully behind advances made in Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, unfortunately both Germany and Russia have their own problems when it comes to the Eastern Front.